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diacritics 34.3 (2006) 55-72

Joyce in Buenos Aires (Talking Sexuality through Translation)
Francine Masiello

High modernism works through the secret. The midpoint between intelligibility and blankness, it is part of the strategy of "difficult" writing that elevates the value of the modernist puzzle and perpetuates its claims on institutional power. The trope of the secret, I wish to claim here, also works as a swivel or hinge to balance the relationship between those in the know and those who remain on the margins. This private flow of information is not without purposeful leaks. On the one hand, the secret rubs salt in the eyes of those who fail to perceive what is apparent; it reminds us of our exclusion or blindness. On the other, it sustains a will toward concealment, erecting among its owners a barrier against public intrusion; it creates an insider community against the menacing outside world. These conditions suggest a determined opaqueness, a plot to silence what might otherwise be heard, an effort to withdraw a private truth from wider circulation. The secret thus renders visible, for some, the obvious paths toward knowledge and leaves others as outsiders to meaning. It promises a within and beyond, a reading of surface and depth. It tells us that one person's reading of history often cloaks that of another, that cover-ups are the rule of the day when it comes to interpretation.

This drama is enacted within the multiple folds of language and often elicits the advantages of the translator's turn. Translation, after all, plays the kind of striptease that always entices the reader to know what lies behind the screen of words, to peer beneath the surface and look for hidden meaning. It reminds us of the inaccessibility of some original text and signals our estrangement. Like the secret, translation betrays the first concealment of identity that hides behind a name. Part of a postlapsarian world, it announces an ongoing and unresolved gap between direct experience and representation.1 Often, the trope of sexuality is used to mediate these extremes. Posited on the taboo, on the intimate act that resists a name, on the verbal striptease that awakens the voyeur's attentions, sexuality in the kind of literary text I am describing becomes an aesthetic instrument that sustains the double encodings belonging to verbal art. Moving in this direction, I want to first address James Joyce's Ulysses and then track the elaboration of this problem in the works of some recent Argentine writers who exploit the metaphorical opportunity that I am attempting to establish here. My plan is to link secrets and translation; secrets and sexuality; and, finally, to link the exposure of sexual secrets in terms of acts of translation.

The central novel of modernism, Ulysses is governed by secrets, ranging from the contents of Bloom's pockets, which hide lottery tickets, potatoes, and soap bars, [End Page 55] to the obscure corners of the text that resist our excavation. These hidden objects and covert meanings test Stephen's dubious claim about the "ineluctable modality of the visible" [3: 1]. They supply an underlife beneath the signature of history. And by their accidental collision with the surface of fact, they reorient the effects of the novel in strange and discordant ways. Obscure details thus creep upon us, without our least awareness, showing us the "limits of the diaphane" [3: 4], a caveat reiterated by Stephen from an early moment in the text. A hidden reversibility of the real thus underlies all experience. These sustain the force of the novel and decidedly move it ahead while, at the same time, shattering the mirrors that promise an absolute reflection of the real. Seeing straight, in Ulysses, is simply out of the question. The secret, Joyce might have claimed, is in the art itself, and the art is about double movements somewhere between the surface of words and what lies beneath them. It engages us in the act of discerning (the root word of secret), a process of sorting out the mysteries...


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